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The government has been urged to set out a timetable for a plan to replace 13 ageing Type 23 frigates with new models

By Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor

The Times – 21 November 2016

The Royal Navy is dangerously small and will be unable to cope if the state of global security worsens, MPs have warned. There were “serious concerns” about whether Britain could afford to prevent the size of the fleet – which was already “pathetically low” – shrinking any further, the Defence Select Committee said in a report published today.

Dropping below the present 19 frigates and destroyers even for a short time would be “completely unacceptable” and leave Britain lacking the maritime strength to deal with the threats it faces from nations such as Russia. The MPs also criticised the Ministry of Defence for “extraordinary mistakes” in the design of six Type 45 destroyers, which cost £1 billion each.

A resurgent Russia is already increasingly deploying ships and submarines past British waters. Britain only had a limited number of vessels to track a Russian aircraft carrier group that travelled through the Channel last month en route to the Mediterranean.

The Committee urged the Government to set out a clear timetable for a plan to replace 13 ageing Type 23 frigates with new models in a national shipbuilding strategy. The programme for the new Type 26 global combat ships and Type 31 general purpose frigates – already repeatedly delayed – must also demonstrate that it is fully funded, the MPs said.

They criticised the MoD and BAE Systems over the faults in the Type 45 destroyers, with engine problems requiring a major refit. The MPs accused the department and contractors of a “serious failing” for under-testing the system, which is unable to operate continuously in warm waters, and warned that the problems had “potentially dangerous” consequences.

“It is astonishing that the specification for the Type 45 did not include the requirement for the ships to operate at full capacity – and for sustained periods – in hot regions such as the Gulf,”

the Committee said.

“The UK’s enduring presence in the Gulf should have made it a key requirement for the engines. The fact that it was not was an inexcusable failing and one which must not be repeated. Failure to guarantee this would put the personnel and ships of the Royal Navy in danger, with potentially dangerous consequences.”

Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Committee, said that numbers of Royal Navy escort vessels have been severely in decline.

“The fleet is now way below the critical mass required for the many tasks which could confront it, if the international scene continues to deteriorate,”

he said.

“What remains of our surface fleet now faces a prolonged period of uncertainty, as the frigate class is replaced in its entirety and all our destroyers undergo urgent, major remedial work on their unreliable engines.”

In their 44-page report, the MPs raised concerns about the timetable to replace the Navy’s frigates, which will leave service at a rate of one a year between 2023 and 2035. They noted that a failure to cut steel on the replacement warships risked losing shipbuilding skills within BAE Systems as well as increasing the total cost.

An announcement by Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, that work would begin on the first of the Type 26 global combat ships from next summer was met with scepticism because of a failure by the MoD and BAE Systems to finalise the contract.

“As an island nation, the importance of the Royal Navy to UK defence must not be underestimated,”

the MPs said. Mr Lewis added that the committee was “putting the MoD on notice” to complete the modernisation programme on time.